Saturday, July 19, 2008

Reliving My Youth

A couple of times when I was a teenager, mom shipped us to Thailand to spend summer break with the relatives and learn about our roots. The first time I was 13 and it was so exciting to travel alone. Except I had my 8 year old brother in tow, and that was annoying.

Since we stayed for 2 to 3 months at a time, we weren’t treated like tourists (that is, our relatives didn’t take time from work to show us around) and we were too young to venture out ourselves. The aunts and uncles worked during the day, so us kids mostly just hung out in the neighborhood. And because the adults had to leave 2 hours early to account for the horrendous Bangkok traffic, the cousins, brother and I had to procure our own breakfast, lunch and snacks. Every meal we ate came from one street vendor or another. No matter what else we’d eat during the day, we always made a trip to a particular vendor to get skewered, grilled fish balls brushed with a delicious sweet chili-garlic sauce. We’d wait patiently while the old man turned the perfectly round, skewered balls over a hibachi-type grill. I just could not get enough of these snacks. Even though I haven’t had them in years, I still remember how delicious they were.

I’ve tried to replicate that delicious street snack, minus the street, oppressive humidity and pesky baby brother. Maybe that’s why the version I made could never compare to the ones I ate every single day that summer long ago, but they turned out pretty good, if I do say so myself.

Cocktail shrimp balls with sweet chili-garlic sauce
Makes about 35 cocktail-sized shrimp balls
  • 2 pounds shrimp, shelled and de-veined
  • 3 tbs cornstarch
  • 2 tbs fish sauce
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 5 kaffir lime leaves, minced
  • Sweet chili garlic sauce (recipe follows)
In a food processor, add the shrimp, egg, garlic, lime leaves and fish sauce and process just until you get a paste. Add the cornstarch and process just until incorporated.

To make the shrimp balls, transfer the paste to a large bowl. It will be very sticky, so you’ll want another bowl of water next to you to wet your hands every so often. I made balls about the size of one tablespoon, but you are welcome to make them a little larger. As you’ll notice, they are hard to form in perfect balls. That’s okay; it’s rustic! For two pound of shrimp, you could get about 35 to 40 balls depending on how big you make them.

Not the prettiest picture, I know. I wanted to show what the paste should look like, just so no one freaks out when they see how sticky it is.

To steam the shrimp balls, I use my wok fitted with a bamboo steamer. Use whatever set up you want. Just be sure to line the bottom of the steaming basket with parchment to keep the paste from sticking to the basket. Once the water boils, they will take about 3 or 4 minutes to steam. You’ll have to steam in batches, unless you have an industrial sized steamer. Don’t crowd the balls; they puff up during steaming. They will deflate once they cool off. I like to remove the balls to a rack to cool.

After the shrimp balls are steamed, you have a few options. They can be served as they are, warm with the chili garlic sauce for dipping. This is the way to go if you are impatient or a health nut. If you are in the mood, you could skewer and grill them. If they are still warm or room temp, they won’t take very long at all. Brush a little sauce on them occasionally. Watch them though! The sauce can burn quite quickly due to the sugar content. Since I can’t be bothered to start up my Weber just for a few shrimp ball skewers, my second favorite way to enjoy them is sautéed in my wok, tossed in a little of the sauce. The sauce caramelizes nicely giving a deliciously ooey-gooey coating. Stick them with toothpicks or short skewers, and serve with some of the sauce for dipping. Your family and guests will love you.

If you don’t have a crowd of people to feed, the shrimp balls can be frozen after they are steamed. Freeze them in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Once they are frozen, throw them into a Ziploc bag, pressing out all the air. If you've got a food vacuum sealer, even better! Thaw the balls in the fridge overnight before heating.

This sweet chili sauce is so simple to make, you’ll never need to buy the commercial stuff again! It's just simple syrup spiked with a little vinegar (or lime juice or tamarind puree if you like), chili and garlic. Heck, you could put minced up ginger, green onions, diced white onions, diced cucumbers or even kaffir lime leaves in it too!

If you find this sauce is too sweet for your taste, just add a little more vinegar and/or fish sauce. Also, I cheat and use the Lee Kum Kee (LKK) chili garlic sauce. Despite its fiery appearance, the LKK sauce is not very spicy. Even Sonny can eat it when I use it in foods. If you want to do it the “authentic” way, add about 2 or 3 minced garlic cloves and as much red chili flakes or sambal oelek as you can stand. And don’t worry if the sauces is not as thick as the commercial stuff; it’ll still taste great.

Sweet Chili garlic Sauce
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ cup water
  • ¼ cup rice vinegar
  • 1 tbs fish sauce or more to taste
  • 1 tbs chili garlic sauce (or 2 minced cloves garlic + as much chili flakes as you can stand)
In a small sauce pan, add the sugar, water and rice vinegar. Bring to a boil and continue to boil until it thickens a little, about 5 minutes after it comes to a boil. Take it off the heat and allow it to cool slightly. Throw in the garlic, chili and fish sauce. Stir and taste. Allow to cool to room temperature before serving. It will thicken a little more when cooled, although it will never be as thick as the commercial stuff.

If this recipe has piqued your interest, you may also like Thai fish cakes.


Manggy said...

I'm sure your baby brother found you equally a pest, heh heh ;) Fish and squid balls are also popular street vendor food here, but they are invariably fried. Those treats you cooked up look great especially coated in one of my favorite sauces!

Lars said...

looks great Darlene... we are getting hooked on your thai cooking here in norway. I love the clean and well balanced flavours you are putting together. I feel like i can taste exactly what your are going for in your recipes even without making them. If you keep it up i'll just have to publish you :-)

Dee said...

manggy, baby brother was good for one thing at least: scaring away the lizards! HA HA!

lars, thank you! Maybe you have a bit of Asian in you and you didn't even know it?? :-) Most people just think SE Asian food is spicy, but it's actually more complex than that, with different flavor components. It's great that others can appreciate that.

Jason said...

These look really good, I have never made anything like this. Oh, your pictures are beautiful for his dish too!

dp said...

Thank you, Jason! I just realized the shrimp balls kinda look like tater tots! LOL

Mike of Mike's Table said...

These sound like great memories and like great finger food. I'll keep these in mind next time I'm entertaining a crowd--seems like a very welcome change from the usual shrimp platter

Anonymous said...

Great post! I love food that reminds me of places that I've traveled. Lovely!

eatingclubvancouver_js said...

One of my all-time favourites: shrimp balls! The sticky coating looks especially yummy.

Dee said...

mike, definitely great finger food! But I'd recommend using toothpicks, unless you don't mind licking your fingers :-)

girlcanbake, absolutely!

js, one of my favorite too!

Brilynn said...

I'm bookmarking this to try, it sounds great!

Anonymous said...

I love fish balls, and never thought to make a homemade version! They look especially tasty with the sweet chili sauce.

Paula said...

Ok, I'm impressed that you traveled alone as a young teen (with baby brother) all the way to another country! And stayed for 2-3 months! Wow!

This recipe is terrific! I really like your style of cooking. I read through this one twice because it sounds so good! Even though I don't have a crowd to feed, I suspect I would eat them as if I were a crowd ... after fighting off my family who would inevitably want some, too! Yum!

QGIRL said...

OMG, you've just relived MY past. We lived in Singapore for about 3 years when I was a wee lass, and I remember eating fish balls (served to us on skewers) with chili sauce after piano lessons. It was our treat for being good and playing well. So delicious. Thanks for the recipe.

food makes me happy said...

I'm hungry now...
Super hungry...

Wandering Chopsticks said...

Hey! That's my childhood. Well, except my brother and I got sent to California instead. And there were no street vendors selling yummy food. Does the ice cream truck count?

Dee said...

Brilynn, please tell me how you like them. Asian-style fish/meatballs are a little "spring-y" than any Western ones I've had. Think fishballs you'd find in pho.

Paula, the adults and kids will be fighting over these! I brought them to a neighbors house for a BBQ and everyone liked them, even the kids. They didn't even know it was shrimp.

WC, there just aren't enough street vendors here in the US, are there??

test it comm said...

Those look really tasty!

tigerfish said...

Shrimp balls in sweet chili sauce. I know they are good though I've not tried them in BKK before. I just know. Your pictures tell me so. Can I have one? :D

Thip said...

Hi Darlene,

I'm passing along this award "Arte y Pico" to you, feel free to check info on my blog on July 26. Thank you.

Alicia Foodycat said...

Delicious! I love the way you write - I can feel the oppressive humidity and hear the whining from your brother. I love tod mun pla, I have to try making these!

Dee said...

Foodycat, thank you for the nice words. We love fish cakes in this house too. Very easy to make and they freeze well. Here's my recipe :